NFL Preview - Carolina (3-4) at New Orleans (7-0)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Better play over their last four games has the Carolina Panthers thinking they can get back into the playoff mix. A win over the undefeated New Orleans Saints this weekend would go a long way in validating those beliefs.
Carolina faces its toughest matchup of the season Sunday at the Superdome, where they will take on a New Orleans club that is aiming for its first-ever 8-0 start.
Despite minimal roster turnover, the Panthers have hardly looked like the club that went 12-4 last year, a season that included a pair of wins over the Saints and Carolina's seventh win a row at the Superdome.
The Panthers dropped their first three games of the season and were outscored 87-37 over that span, but have won three of their last four games since an October 4 bye. That does still have them four games back of the first-place Saints.
With quarterback Jake Delhomme struggling, Carolina turned to its ground game last weekend, getting a combined 245 yards from DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in a 34-21 victory over Arizona. The defense, meanwhile, forced six turnovers out of Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner.
Delhomme did suffer a chest injury in the victory that caused him to miss the end of the game and required a hospital visit, but he returned to practice on Wednesday and should be under center when the Panthers try to knock off a Saints club that is off to the second 7-0 start in franchise history. New Orleans also opened the 1991 season with seven straight wins for the franchise's best-ever start before this year.
New Orleans is coming off a win over division-rival Atlanta on Monday night, a contest that saw the Saints rip off 21 straight points in the second quarter and record two fourth-quarter interceptions in a 35-27 victory.
With the win, the Saints moved three games up on the second-place Falcons and joined the Indianapolis Colts as the lone unbeaten teams left in the NFL.
Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 308 yards with two touchdown passes, but has never beaten the Panthers at home in a Saints uniform. He threw four touchdown passes against them in the Superdome in New Orleans' 2008 season finale, but Carolina kicker John Kasay booted a 42-yard field goal with one second left to give the Panthers a victory.
Brees fell 15 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino's NFL record of 5,084 passing yards in a single season, but still become the second quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a campaign.
Carolina leads its all-time series with New Orleans, 16-12, including a home- and-home sweep last season. The Panthers earned a 30-7 home victory when the teams met in Week 7, then closed out the NFC South with a dramatic 33-31 victory at the Superdome in Week 17. The Panthers have now won six of the last seven over the Saints, with the only defeat during that stretch a 31-6 triumph by New Orleans in Charlotte in Week 12 of the 2007 season. The Panthers have won seven straight road games in the series since last losing in New Orleans in 2001.
Panthers head coach John Fox has a 10-4 record against the Saints in his career, including 7-0 in road games. New Orleans' Sean Payton is 1-5 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach. Fox and Payton both served as members of Jim Fassel's staff with the New York Giants from 1999 through 2001.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Delhomme (1262 passing yards, 5 TD) entered the Arizona game with an NFL-high 13 interceptions, but he did not turn the ball over once before exiting with his injury. However, Carolina also seemed to play it safe with its quarterback, letting him throw just 14 times. Delhomme completed seven of those passes for 90 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith (30 receptions). Smith caught his first scoring pass of the season and ended with three catches for 56 yards, while young wideout Dwayne Jarrett started in place of the injured Muhsin Muhammad (knee) and made two catches for 22 yards. The Panthers wisely put the ball in the hands of Williams (619 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Stewart (360 rushing yards, 4 TD) last week. Williams had 23 carries for a season-high 158 yards, while Stewart added 17 rushes for 87 yards with two touchdowns. After some early-season struggles, the Panthers now rank 5th in the NFL with an average of 148.9 rushing yards per game.
While the Saints have the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, their defense hasn't been too shabby either. Cornerback Jabari Greer (36 tackles, 2 INT) returned an interception 48 yards for a score versus Atlanta, New Orleans' club record-tying fifth pick-six of the season that matched the 1998 team. The Saints have at least one interception in each game this year and lead the NFL with 16 total. Safety Darren Sharper (26 tackles) also had a pick versus the Falcons and is tied for the league lead with seven on the season. He also leads the NFL with 317 return yards off those interceptions and has returned three to the end zone. Corner Tracy Porter (34 tackles, 3 INT) ended Monday with an interception as well, while defensive end Will Smith (19 tackles, 4.5 sacks) had two of New Orleans' three sacks. Defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove (21 tackles, 3 sacks) also got to the quarterback and safety Roman Harper (46 tackles, 1 sack) led the team with eight tackles.
WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL
New Orleans does enter this contest with some minor concerns about its offense. Although the Saints are scoring 39 points per game and lead the NFL with an average of 428.7 total yards per game, the club has turned the ball over four times in each of its last two tests. Brees (2006 passing yards, 16 TD, 6 INT) had a three-interception, one-fumble game versus Miami in Week 7, then threw a pick versus the Falcons. He was also one of three players to lose a fumble versus Atlanta, joining running backs Mike Bell and Pierre Thomas. Thomas (405 rushing yards, 5 total TD), though, ran for and caught a touchdown pass against Atlanta, while Bell (392 rushing yards, 2 TD) ran 17 times for 49 yards. Running back Reggie Bush (20 receptions, 4 rushing TD) added a one-yard touchdown run. Wide receiver Marques Colston (36 receptions, 6 TD) made six catches for 85 yards and found the end zone, while tight end Jeremy Shockey (31 receptions, 3 TD) donated five catches for 72 yards.
The Saints will be going up against a Panthers defense that is allowing the fewest passing yards per game (160.6) in the league. However, Carolina has been dominated on the ground this year, yielding 127.6 yards per game that ranks 24th in the NFL. Carolina limited Arizona to 320 yards of offense, with the pass-happy Cardinals notching 94 on the ground and 226 through the air. Four different players notched interceptions versus Arizona, with rookie safety Sherrod Martin getting the first two of his career. Martin started in place of Charles Godfrey (21 tackles), who could miss his second game in a row because of an ankle injury. Defensive end Julius Peppers (27 tackles, 7 sacks) forced a fumble and returned an interception 13 yards for a score, while linebacker Thomas Davis (55 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) and corner Richard Marshall (28 tackles, 2 INT) added picks. Linebacker Jon Beason (52 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) led the club with 11 tackles.
Carolina's focus on the ground game is good news for Williams and Stewart owners, as both should get a load of carries as long as the Panthers don't fall behind early. Both of Stewart's touchdown runs last week came inside the red zone, which could be disheartening for Williams owners if Stewart gets all the touches in close. Delhomme isn't worth a roster spot right now, but Steve Smith appears to be a decent play as the quarterback's favorite target. He should get a lot of chances this weekend in what likely will be a shootout. Avoid Carolina's defense.
Even against the NFL's top-ranked passing defense, Brees, Colston and Shockey are all must starts. With wideout Lance Moore battling an ankle injury, Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem see their value increase as well. Bell and Thomas should get the bulk of the work at running back, with Thomas seemingly the better touchdown threat. Bush, meanwhile, isn't getting a lot of touches but has scored four times this year, making him risk-reward. New Orleans' defense should get a look, as it scores and has a good matchup this weekend.
Although the Panthers have been playing better as of late, this figures to be a very tough matchup for the squad. They aren't built to survive a shootout, which is exactly what this game should turn into. Delhomme's turnover issues will likely rise again versus a Saints defense that has forced them at will, while Brees and the offense should get plenty of chances to move the ball downfield and remain undefeated.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 35, Panthers 13
11/05 18:52:26 ET